Don’t ask me about the news regarding Therrien’s firing on Sunday; I’m not quite sure it was the right thing to do.
The Penguins have been in this miasmic free-fall mode since December, though argueably you could make the case it started when Sergei Gonchar whacked his shoulder wrong in the first preseason game back in October. But is it really Therrien’s fault?
When Pittsburgh brought Michel in back in December of 05, the team was in a death spiral. Bottom of the league, scraping the leavings of better teams and barely making 47 points that year – a gift, if anything. He replaced Eddie Olczyk – another firing that I disagreed with – during Sid’s rookie year and got them through the rest of that horrendous season.
Two seasons later, Therrien’s helming a lightning squad with a top-4 power play into the Stanley Cup Finals and came within two victorys of watching the Pens hoist their third Cup. Instead, the team faltered, Detroit pounced, and it was over.
Still, Therrien was rewarded with a three-year contract extension and saw Shero work some contract magic to retain a solid core of players for the franchise that would make it a perennial contender for the Cup. Despite losing Hossa, Malone, Roberts, Conklin and others to the inevitable ‘salary cap cutdown.’ Hossa was the biggest loss, but that’s a rumination for another time.
I rejoiced when Therrien was carted in back when Eddie O just lost control of the team. Eddie didn’t fail the Pens then – the team failed him – but unfortunately, the Penguins practice the same head 0ffice shenanigans the rest of the league does, and fires the coach when the team is below expectations, regardless how unrealistic. (See: Tampa Bay Lightning) Such is the case now.
Common rumor suggest Therrien was a monster in the locker room, where no player respected him or loved him. I know Michel’s a hard coach to have; witness his hard-nosed style from the days of running the Wilkesbarre team. But despite his hard edge, he was successful. You don’t need to be liked to be successful as a coach, just like in the business world. Something that many people tend to forget these days. It’s the instructors, leaders and coaches that push you that are the ones you remember years later. Because they forced you to be the best you could be.
Such as it was with Therrien. The Pens didn’t make the Cup finals last year because they love-fested over Therrien. They made it because he forced them to realize they were better than they even thought they were. A coach who is ‘liked’ is usually going to be one that won’t get the job done.
While the Pens made it “clear” they weren’t firing him because of a failure of team chemistry, there had to be some reason for it. Obviously, looking at where the Penguins sit today, before their afternoon Islanders game, at 5 points under the last playoff spot, they’re not doing well at all. Despite having two of the league’s top scorers and the core of a power play unit that scared teams last season, they’re abysmal. While the Pens’ loss in Toronto wasn’t a key factor, according to Shero, “it was how the game was played.”
Therrien’s system has always been a ‘defense-first’ system. Even the offensive players need to keep defense in mind; such a mindset was key to many Pens victories last year, breaking up plays and turnovers quickly, then capitalizing on them. Being consistently offensively-minded, especially with a stumbling goalie such as Fleury is this year, will more often than not shoot you in the foot. Look at Detroit: Osgood’s got an abysmal save percentage this year, despite winning a lot of games. The Red Wings win games not because of defense, but because they score more points than their opponent. They’re front-loaded with talent – unlike this season’s Pens – and can afford high-scoring games. The Penguins? Can’t. Being too offensive-minded lends to a porous defense that has sunk many games this year. Saturday’s game vs. Toronto is but one example of many.
It’s obvious to me it’s team chemistry. I’ve watched many, many games this year (thanks to Center Ice) and the chemistry just isn’t present. Missed plays, broken passes, ill-taken penalties, blown offside rushes – it’s cringe-worthy to watch, even against the staple “easy victims” like the Isle, Toronto, Atlanta and St. Louis. Those games shouldn’t even be nail-biters!
Is Therrien to blame for that? From all accounts, he’s not adjusted his style much since he started – the December “switch” to a light trapping game notwithstanding – and he’s still the same gruff, brusque coach he’s always been. You know, the same one who in the span of a year, made the Pens from a cellar-dweller to a playoff-viable team, challenging for the Cup only two years later! So if he’s not changed, then what has?
It’s the team. It’s like the Penguins are scared of fulfilling the ‘curse’ that supposedly befalls the loser of the Cup series, where they don’t return to the playoffs the next year. (See: Tampa, Buffalo, Carolina, Ottawa.) Like they’re scared of being good, never mind great. As if they have reason to doubt themselves after being ‘gutted’ over the summer.
They don’t. The core of talent still exists. But to me, it’s like watching the mid-90s Penguins, which starred Jagr and Lemieux…but couldn’t get the jump needed to blast into the playoffs. Malkin and Crosby are the ‘new’ generation – and it’s looking like the old, to me. The team needs to be a team, not some collection of super stars and second liners all skating to the beat of 22 different drummers.
The Penguins need to coalesce, and fast. Time’s running out and I will not be happy if I have to suffer through a playoff year with only the Caps (and Caps fans) to deal with. Either Shero needs to pull a trade out of nowhere again, or find another goalie (Garon was a mistake) to back up and instill confidence in Fluery. Or we may see Shero exit the same door Therrien left through on Sunday.
The unknown factor now is the new coach, also from the Baby Penguins (as Therrien was). Dan Bylsma is a relative coaching unknown, having only coached half a season in Wilksbarre. Granted, he’s 35-16-1-2, so he knows what he’s doing. But can he turn this team around with 25 games remaining and squeak into the playoffs? One quote of his from ESPN gives some hope to that: “We need to put the brakes on — we’re in a hole, but we need to stop digging and get focused on what we need to do to play good hockey,” Bylsma said. “We need to be an aggressive group, and get focused on playing back to our strengths, and focus away from this situation the last while here.” I hope so, sir. I hope so.
Michel Therrien, I raise my glass to you. You were the catalyst the Penguins needed. I’m sorry to see you go for such poor play on the team’s part – they let you down, sir – and I hope that your brilliant coaching talent will be recognized elsewhere in the league. Say as they want, the Pens cannot deny you were the intregal part of their reconstruction the last three seasons. Bon chance, monsieur.